On March 21, when the Eagles acquired DeMeco Ryans, optimism swelled in Philadelphia. After fans and bloggers debated for months, seemingly since Week 2 of the season, on who should be targeted to play middle linebacker, the front office pulled the trigger on a deal beyond the realm of reasonable expectation.
What they are sure to get out of the swap is a proven leader. a fantastic teammate, and a veteran presence in what was previously a remarkably inexperienced second-level. Everything beyond that is something of a question mark.
Ryans burst into the league in 2006 as the NFL Rookie of the Year, and become an epitomy of quality middle linebacker play through the following three seasons, with two Pro Bowl trips. He was fantastic, making all the right reads and every tackle.
Then, in October 2010, the former Texan ruptured his Achilles tendon. It's that moment, coupled with the cheap price tag Houston agreed to, that might give euphoric Eagles fans pause amidst the celebration.
Ryan's production slipped mightily after returning from the injury in 2011. Watching film of him, he didn't seem to have the same burst he did in 2009. He still made some plays, but he wasn't the monster he once was.
Now, many have speculated that the cause for the droppoff was mainly due to the change in defensive scheme; in the first part of Ryans' career, Houston operated defensively out of a 4-3, with Ryan playing the middle, and in 2011, the switch to the 3-4 was certainly a less natural fit for the Alabama alum. But it shouldn't have made him irrelevant.
The biggest difference on rushing downs between the 3-4 defense and the 4-3 defense for middle (or inside, in a 3-4) linebackers ia that in a 3-4, they must be more adept at shedding blocks. With only a nose guard and two defense ends, vice two defensive tackles and ends, offensive lineman and fullbacks have an easier time getting to the next level of the defense. So, instead of filling holes, inside backers must try to shed blocks, and, if they cannot, clog the hole until the weakside backer arrives.
According to 3-4 guru and former Broncos defensive coordinator Joe Collier, middle linebackers, of all positions, actually transistion the easiest from the 4-3.
In 2010, the Redskins switched to a 3-4 from a 4-3, and, after 12 years in the old scheme, MLB London Fletcher became LILB London Fletcher. After making the Pro Bowl in 2009, he went back in 2010. Guys with that skillset can adapt.
Now, go watch a Ryans highlight on Youtube and tell me that he could not succeed in the 3-4. He shed blocks with authority and still got to the ball carrier on a consistant basis. He could absolutely be effective in the 3-4.
I'm not saying the scheme change had nothing to do with Ryans' decrease in productivity, but if expectations in Philadelphia are to see the Ryans from 2009, they should be tempered a bit.
Linebackers, more than most positions, rely on explosiveness and strength in the lower half to be productive. Achilles injuries have proven to have lingering effects in those areas. In examining cases of linebackers who have previously suffered the injury, one instance sticks out above the rest.
Former Eagle Takeo Spikes tore his tendon in week 4 of the 2005 season. In 2006, he was a shell of the explosive player he had been in 2003 and 2004, both Pro Bowl years. In 2007, he was traded to the Eagles, and for that season and the two subsequent, he contributed while improving each year. Then in 2010, he finally looked like the Takeo Spikes of old.
Other examples range from the hope inspiring, like Greg Ellis, the former Cowboy who, after tearing his Achilles in 2006, won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 2007, to the utterly disappointing, like Shawne Merriman, the once terrifying Chargers edge rusher who's forgettable play has surrounded more injuries since the initial.
I find that the Spikes example is the most useful because, one, the pattern up to this point is right on with Ryans, from the early Pro Bowls to the poor play the year after the injury and then the trade, and, two, he plays middle linebacker, not outside like Ellis and Merriman.
So the bottom line here is that, regardless of scheme, Ryans will likely not immediately be the force he once was, but given time, he could return to that level.
Until then, he will still be better than Casey Matthews.